by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist
The King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, won his 13th French Open Title in October and tied Roger Federer’s Grand Slam record of 20.
Here’s what Rafa said about it immediately following his win: “When I lose it’s not a drama for me, and when I achieve something important I don’t see it as especially amazing either."
“I always try to treat victory and defeat in the same normal, natural way.”
This is not conventional. But, neither is Rafa.
Rafa’s long-time coach, Uncle Tony, famously forced Rafa to carry his own bag and fly in coach, not first class, after he won tournaments.
Because he didn’t want Rafa to think he was that special. Intuitively, Uncle Tony knew that staying even keel throughout a long career was essential for success.
Unlce Tony and Rafa certainly would agree with Rudy Kipling:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same….
This leads me to the topic of "expectations," a mindset and a trap that I also discuss in my book, The Best Tennis of Your Life, Leave Your Expectations Off the Court.
What comes up when you think about expectations before anything important—a tennis match, sports event, a meeting, even a conversation?
In addition, let's say that you feel that you or your team “should” win—that you will get the outcome you expect and want.
But the event hasn’t happened yet. Therefore, it’s uncertain, right?
Maybe you think that imposing expectations on yourself related to the outcome might somehow increase the chance of it happening.
Or, like the player I just hung up with a few hours ago playing ITF tournaments abroad, she didn’t realize she was thinking this way until she lost.
For most of us, the monkey mind just “goes there.” Uncertainty creates fear and fear creeps into the crevices of your mind when you’re not paying attention.
You look at the draw, you bargain with it, wishing you were playing someone else—“just not her in the first round”—then the butterflies descend and the trap is set.
The outcome hangs over your head like a dark cloud. You want to win.
People even expect you to win.
In The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player of all time, when asked if he thought about winning or losing in a basketball game, he said, “Why would l think about something like that? I’ve got a basketball game to play.”
Don’t be surprised if your expectations are about the outcome. I rarely find this helpful with one exception—when you don’t believe you can win.
Then, by all means, you need to remind yourself that it is, in fact, a possibility that you can win. This is different than you “should” win. In this case, imagining yourself performing well and prevailing, can even give you a dose of confidence in moments of doubt.
However, as a general rule, expectations about the outcome only set you up for disappointment. If you feel that you “should” win then anything short of that will seem threatening and not help you execute.
The Mind’s Dilemma
The problem is that we live our lives every day, almost every moment, with expectations—expectations that the plane will make it safely to its destination, the cars driving toward us will stay in their lanes, our kids will come home safely, etc.
Our lives are built around positive expectations that help us stay calm and enthusiastic despite great uncertainty—of course, now more than ever.
So, why doesn’t this same mindset work when it comes to performance?
Well, for one thing, when it comes to competition your opponent doesn’t want the same outcome as you. In fact, their goal is to shatter any expectations you may have about a positive result.
What if the pilot of the plane you’re flying didn’t want the same outcome as you? Unfortunately, we’ve seen this outcome.
Many of the things we expect to happen each day are also expected by others—they, too, want to make it to their destination, not have an accident on the freeway and they want to see their kids at the end of each day.
So, the key is having expectations work for you.
I am sure you’re probably growing tired of this concept by now—the importance of controlling what we can control….yes, we must expect that we will execute on the intentions we set based on the aspects of the competition that we control.
Therefore, when the expectations are about HOW you want to feel or what you want to execute tactically—your planned shot combinations, your state—being loose, focused, with just the right amount of intensity—this will lead you to mastery, and, ironically, more winning.
If you want to expect anything, expect the things that you have 100% control over.
Besides, researchers found that winning doesn’t feel as good when they are expected anyway.
Ask Roger Federer about the moments he will likely never forget—at both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, holding two match points against Novak Djokovic—and how he stepped, albeit briefly, into the “rabbit hole of expectations” and endured two devastating losses.
The expectations come in an instant.
Every competitive tennis player knows the experience of having the mind fixate on the score and the “finish line” as it delights in the looming expectation—the “pot of gold” resembling a W that is awaiting him, if only you could just get this one game.
Expectations. Outcome. Glory.
Well, I suggest we discover a different gear, to compete from a new mindset—one that moves upward toward mastery. Get your free Mastery Guide Here.
1 Action: Shine a Light on Your Expectations
My challenge to you: Ask yourself 2x during the day, “What was I just thinking?” Do this for a week.
That’s it, you might ask?
Yes. Seriously begin to observe your mind when you're about to do something you really care about.
Because if you don’t “catch” your mind wandering over to the land of expectations, if you get swept away into the river and don’t jump over to the river bank to see the river (thoughts) flowing by, you will likely get tossed over the dam more often than you’d like.
The brain loves questions. It’s designed to answer them. This will help you become more aware so you can redirect your mind when it wanders away to these expectations and the "shoulds."
By shining a light on your thoughts internally from time to time, you will have just strengthened your mental muscle so you are back in the driver’s seat.
It beats being held hostage in the back of the car blindfolded while you wonder why you aren’t “there” yet. Yes, I love analogies!
I hope that by keeping your expectations in check, you continue to inch closer to even better days, more often.
- Five Questions for…Betsy Kemp, General Manager of the Goldman Tennis Center
- Five Questions for…Swupnil Sahai, Co-Founder & CEO of SwingVision
- Read TCSF Co-Chair Martha Ehrenfeld’s response to Heather Knight’s Chronicle column regarding “Pickleball players fight to obtain more city courts”
- Five Questions for…Debbie Gersten, Captain of the Goldman Tennis Center’s 5.0 18+ Women’s Team
- 4th US Open Watch Party and Community Tennis Day